People signed Descartes' skull like a high school yearbook.
You know, sometimes you read a book, and you know there's really nothing wrong with it, and you don't hate it, but you don't love it either, you just...read it.
In Descartes' Bones, Russell Shorto follows the journey of the skeleton of Rene Descartes, the author of the groundbreaking "Discourse on Reason." Descartes died in 1650 in Stockholm and did not exactly rest in peace. Over the next two hundred years, his bones would be reburied in France, misplaced, found, and wondered about by generations of philosophers and scientists. His skull was disconnected from the rest of his remains, and the journey of that piece of the man, and the struggle to identify it absolutely when it supposedly turned up, was a story in itself.
Shorto ties the adventures of Descartes earthly remains with the progress of modern thought. Although an argument can be made for any number of points in history as the beginning of modernity, Shorto pins it to the publication of Descartes "Discourse on Reason," and its then-controversial argument for a world based on reason rather than faith. Shorto finds a relationship between the people who handled the bones and the rise of modern thought--the Cartesians, fans of the philosopher, who brought Descartes' bones back to France; the revolutionaries of France who overturned the aristocracy and then spent days debating whether to re-bury Descartes in the Pantheon, the church that had been turned into a place for France's secular saints; the members of the Academy of Science, who used the fumbling early attempts to understand the human brain (did geniuses have extraordinarily large brains? did bumps on the head mean anything?) to try to match the found skull to the great man; the early twentieth century scientists who used new technology to try to recreate from the skull a face that would match a portrait of Descartes...which would turn out to not be a life portrait of the man.
As you can imagine, the travels of Descartes' bones give Shorto opportunities to wander off down any number of paths--the history of museums, the Reformation in Sweden, the history of forensics, the difference between scientists in France and in England, phrenology, mesmerism, etc. It's all very varied and interesting...sort of. It should be more, though. I don't know. I read this book very quickly, and that's usually a good sign, but instead of reading it very quickly because I couldn't wait to get to the next page, but because I was just kind of leafing through the pages in a half-hearted way. Like, "Oh...that's kind of interesting..." I don't know why I wasn't more involved. Usually I love books that give me a chance to learn about all kinds of things--and I did learn some things here that were worth knowing, for example, the efforts by Alexander Lenoir to try to rescue the historic monuments of France from the ravening crowds. And the mini-history of brain studies. There's a good wrap-up chapter about how the divide between mind and body, faith and reason has led to wild pendulum swings and absolutist visions, and how there is a need to retwine the two. Fine things to think about, sure, but somehow it all left me feeling one gigantic shrug. It was nice. There wasn't anything particularly bad about it--well, maybe sometimes I felt it was a little scattered (sort of like this, which I am writing with only half-focus), but it certainly wasn't awful. I wouldn't tell anyone not to read this book; maybe it was just my mood. But for whatever reason, this just left me feeling nothing, and that's always disappointing. I want books to make me feel something, even hate or fury is better than nothing. I always want something and in the end it seems like I can't find it. Yet I keep looking. I either am going through life with an optimism that would make Candide roll his eyes, or I am too stupid to know when to quit. Maybe both of those are the same thing.